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On Living Anew: Remembering a (Re)Birthday

May 18, 1997|Si Frumkin | Si Frumkin is chairman of the Southern California Council for Soviet Jews

I celebrated my other birthday late last month, on April 27. I wasn't born on that date--just reborn. The death sentence I had lived with for four years was lifted. My name was no longer "Inmate 82191." All that ended on that warm spring day. I was 14 years old on this, my second birthday.

When people ask me what camp I was in, I say "Dachau." Actually it was Arbeitslager Kaufering #1, administered by Dachau, which was about 50 miles away. Dachau is well known but most people never heard of Kaufering. A friend of mine who was in the camp with me went back to Germany, as a tourist, a few years ago. He drove to Kaufering and asked for directions to the concentration camp. The people looked at him as if he was crazy. "A camp? Here? There was never a camp near here," they said. Exasperated, he went to the police station. The cops were polite. "There was never a camp here. You must be mistaken, sir," they said.

He drove around the countryside for a while, and eventually found the underground factory that he and I and 30,000 other Jews worked. It still stands--serving as a German army warehouse. They let him look around--but the camps are gone. Real-estate developments have replaced the guard towers and barbed wire.

There were 10 Kaufering camps, numbered 1 through 10, with about 3,000 inmates in each. We all worked on the same giant project--building an enormous aircraft factory. Work went on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It wasn't a death camp per se; we were there to work not to be murdered. But we worked 12-hour shifts plus time to march to work and back, time to stand around and be counted and recounted until the numbers came out right--they never came out right the first time, people died in the night and barracks and latrines had to be searched for the missing bodies. So we had little time left to sleep and, what with the schedule and starvation diets, people died. Every few weeks they brought in more people from all over Europe--Jews from Poland and Hungary and Czechoslovakia and France and even Greece. We were cheap slaves--better than cheap, we had no value at all; we cost nothing and there was an inexhaustible supply of us.

Toward the end, we knew the war wasn't going well for the Germans. U.S. planes flew over daily--shiny bombers, covering the sky, moving majestically, unhindered, unstoppable. They would drop aluminum chaff to confuse German radar and we picked it up at first, trying to fathom what it was for (Were these secret messages for us?) but no one could figure it out and we stopped bothering.

Once in a while, someone would overhear a news broadcast that a guard listened to or see a piece of paper someone had dropped. This was how we knew that Allied troops were moving toward Germany, toward us. We knew things were changing when we got Red Cross packages--the first and only time in four years. They were individual packages but we got one for four people--luxuries beyond belief: a box of sugar cubes, condensed milk, chocolate, a can of sardines and cigarettes. My father, who had given up smoking years before, exchanged his sugar for more cigarettes. Maybe he had a premonition and wanted to have a final small pleasure--he died soon after, on April 7, just 20 days before my liberation.

Around the end of April they started emptying the other Kaufering camps and bringing the inmates to #1, my camp. Workers would be assembled in columns and marched out, away from the front.

I didn't want to go, so I hid under the straw in one of the barracks. They didn't search that day or the next, as more people were brought in and marched out again. I had made up my mind that if I was taken out, I would try to escape into the forest and wait for the Allies.

Then, as I lay in hiding, I realized it was quiet outside, no yelling of orders, no movement. I looked out the barrack door. The camp was empty. There were a few bodies here and there, but no guards, no inmates, no one. I made my way to the kitchen. There was no food. A few other inmates who had been left behind came straggling in through the night.

In the morning we went to the gate, opened it and just walked out. As we headed across a great empty field, we heard machine gun fire and bullets whistling overhead. I dropped to the ground. "The Germans have come back," I thought. Then one of us jumped up and screamed incoherently, dancing, pointing at a line of tanks coming toward us. I thought he had lost his mind. But then I saw there were white U.S. stars on the sides of the tanks.

It was April 27, 1945. I was 14, on this, my most important birthday.

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